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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023

Buried Treasure, Murder & Intrigue in the Ouachita Mountains


Nothing gets the imagination flowing like rumors of buried treasure. Many of us grew up hearing such stories on film and television. Children of the 1980s like me remember watching “The Goonies” with awe and wonder, hoping that we, too, might stumble across a treasure map in our attic. This map leads to a surprisingly intact pirate ship full of priceless treasures hidden deep in a cave underground.

But as an adult, I must be more pragmatic when daydreaming about finding priceless buried treasure. Nowadays, the search for treasure must start with a simple Google search.

Because of Google, I first stumbled across an obscure website called The Hoot Owl Tree, which told an intriguing tale of buried treasure just up the road in Arkansas. What makes this tale so intriguing are the specifics – pinpointable locations on a map and names from first-hand accounts.

After reading it, I took the liberty of labeling this story “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek.” This story takes place deep in the scenic Ouachita Mountains of West Central Arkansas, a mere three-hour drive from Shreveport. (“Ouachita” is pronounced “Wash-uh-taw.”) The source for this story is a man named Bob Brewer.

Bob, a renowned treasure hunter from Arkansas, was a consultant on the Nicholas Cage movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” The main reason this story is believable is that Bob Brewer has an actual track record of finding gold. Bob once uncovered a jar of gold coins on one of his treasure hunts. If anything would solidify your resume as a treasure hunter, finding a pot full of gold coins surely would. And if that wasn’t enough, famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher also spent time in the Ouachita Mountains about 20 years ago. The reason, any sane person would surmise, was that he, too, was looking for treasure.

It seems “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek” could be more than just a legend.

According to Bob, this story was first told to him by an Arkansas old timer named Isom Avants. In my experiences growing up surrounded by old timers in Texas, there is typically a smidge of truth buried somewhere in their stories. Now, we all know that fact and lore are two different things, so there’s a slight possibility that this story is embellished. But it is fun to think about it. According to Bob, this story was recounted by Avants around a campfire and involved whiskey. (Another exciting facet of old timers is how often their stories involve whiskey.)

Back in 1882, a stranger showed up in the Brushy community deep in the Ouachita Mountains. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was well over six feet tall and wore a six-shooter on his hip. “The Mexican,” as locals immediately labeled him, announced he was on the search for a lost gold mine. This was not an unheard-of endeavor in this part of Arkansas. In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition traversing western Arkansas. The exact route of de Soto’s expedition is unknown, leaving wild speculation about the subject. And anytime Spanish explorers were involved, discussion of treasures immediately followed.

So, locals took note when the curious stranger showed up in Brushy. The Mexican had in his possession a weathered leather map whose markings were burned with a hot brand. The few clues he had were supposedly that the treasure was marked with carvings in trees and hidden within a buried cave or sealed mine. He hired locals to help him in his search. The man, Osborn Vanatta, said he was, in fact, from Mexico. (Some sources have his name spelled “Vanetta.”) Where he obtained the map is unknown.

After two years of futile effort, Vanatta finally narrowed his search to a deep hollow with steep sides and a clear creek running through it. The creek was called Smoke Rock Creek. The creek (and a nearby mountain) is so named because of a rock formation covered in a strange, dark, soot-like color. Vanatta concentrated his efforts, tunneling into the hill near the mouth of Smoke Rock Creek. (Today, this is roughly near the intersection of Polk County Road 633 and Polk County Road 402.)

One day while tunneling, Vanatta’s search paid off. He uncovered the sealed mine supposedly left by the Spanish. Inside, Vanatta found 17th century Spanish mining tools. There was no doubting the veracity of these claims because the discovered tools were later stolen from the man Vanatta had hired to identify them. There’s even a newspaper report about a deputy sheriff being sent to Texarkana to recover the stolen tools. After uncovering the lost mine, Vanatta relieved his hired help of their duties and continued working alone.

Here, “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek” takes a sinister turn. According to news reports, Vanatta had a feud with a family called Hatfield that lived near Vanatta’s operation. It began when one of the Hatfields witnessed Vanatta on the trail with his saddle bags heavily loaded, supposedly with gold. The story is too long and convoluted to share here, but the result was that Vanatta was killed by a man named Tandy Hatfield, not far from where Vanatta was digging. Hatfield claimed self-defense, but others thought Hatfield was out for the gold. Vanatta was buried near where he was killed.

On Aug. 28, 1884, Tandy Hatfield was charged with murder, but he was never convicted of the crime due to some legal shenanigans. Vanatta’s gold was never recovered, his map was lost, and the unsealed mine fell prey to weather and erosion in time. “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek” seemed destined to become just another fabled tale of lost treasure.

Or would it? In the spring of 1932 – almost 50 years later – a man named William “Mr. Bill” Dobson turned up in Brushy, Ark. He was there, he said, to file a mining claim. The real reason, it would turn out, was Mr. Bill intended to pick up where the Mexican treasure hunter Osborn Vanatta left off. Bill’s wife reportedly confided to a neighbor that Mr. Bill had in his possession a map made of lambskin that indicated a sizeable fortune of Spanish gold and silver was buried near Smoke Rock Creek. The famed leather map belonging to Osborn Vanatta had seemingly resurfaced.

Multiple witnesses report having seen the map with their own eyes. Later, the map was stashed in a barn on a friend’s property. Mr. Bill stayed in a cabin on his claim near Smoke Rock Creek, and during his subsequent excavations, he found some enticing breadcrumbs.

He uncovered a rusted metal helmet and a machete of some type. (These items were housed for many years in a private museum in Hatfield, Ark..) Bill Dobson spent time on and off over the next 14 years searching for the buried treasure on Smoke Rock Creek but to no avail.

Then, on June 7, 1946, an event occurred that had all the makings of a Hollywood movie, complete with a twist that the best screenwriters couldn’t have concocted. On that fateful day, Mr. Bill was again prospecting for the buried treasure on Smoke Rock Creek, a few hundred yards away from his cabin. A local man Bill had hired, David Stone, was working nearby. Around lunchtime, Mr. Bill emerged from the nearby woods, running and hollering with excitement. He was so frantic that he tripped and fell into the water when he reached a small footbridge that crossed the creek. As David Stone hurried to his side to help him from the water, a stuttering, visibly shaken Dobson announced to Stone that he had finally found something incredible buried at Smoke Rock Creek. He said Mr. Bill had covered up the site, and he would first need to catch his breath before returning to the dig site. What he found, he told Stone, would “shock the hell” out of him.

But that would never happen. Mr. Dobson suddenly clutched his chest and collapsed in the waters of Smoke Rock Creek, instantly dead from a massive heart attack. David Stone fetched help to make sure Mr. Bill’s body was properly taken care of in Mena, but while they were gone from Smoke Rock Creek, a sudden Arkansas rainstorm dumped a deluge on the dig site, and a flash flood washed away all evidence of where Mr. Bill had been digging. Whatever Mr. Bill had seen – the cause of his excitement and subsequent heart attack – was never determined. To this day, it remains an unsolved mystery.

So, there you have it. What makes “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek” so tantalizing and tempting for amateur treasure hunters and history enthusiasts like yours truly is its accessibility. Smoke Rock Creek is roughly 12 miles east of Hatfield, Ark. The creek is only a little over two miles long, and much of it is accessible from Forest Service roads in the Ouachita National Forest. From start to finish, the whole tale takes place in a surprisingly small geographic area. Vanatta’s grave is also there – as personally witnessed more than once by our storyteller, Bob Brewer. The final and perhaps most titillating piece of information is that the mysterious leather map that could guide adventurers to the lost treasure on Smoke Rock Creek was last stashed in a barn somewhere near Hatfield, Ark. For all we know, the map could still be there.

Tempting, indeed. For Shreveport-Bossier weekend warriors who fancy a treasure hunt, “The Legend of Smoke Rock Creek” could keep you busy for many years. Just keep in mind, if you stumble across untold piles of Spanish treasure on federal property, your first call will have to be to Uncle Sam. To begin your own adventure story and read this tale in its entirety (with considerably more detail), visit www.thehootowltree.com.

Author’s Disclaimer: Searching for buried treasure on private property without the landowner’s consent is illegal and dangerous. Also, mining and/or performing excavation in national forests without proper permits is strictly prohibited.


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